Picture Savvy: Improving Your Climbing Photography

Anderson Matt

by Matt Anderson, AAI Guide

As climbers, we are all quite familiar with photography. A camera rides shotgun on most climbing trips, whether it's a day at the crag or a multi-week high altitude expedition. When we're back at home surfing the Internet or browsing the local newsstand, we don't have to search hard to find images that make our palms sweat or pictures that make us yearn for big adventures. Our sport often takes us to far-flung locations where our lenses are able to feast on intriguing new cultures and dramatic new landscapes.

Why is it that a lot of the photos we take in those dramatic climbing locations just don't convey the excitement that we felt as we looked through the viewfinder? How can we improve our chances of capturing that telling image of adventure and achieve more reliable results with our camera?

While no one becomes a Galen Rowell or Ace Kvale overnight, here are a couple technique and equipment pointers that you may find useful as you work toward developing your skills as a photographer.

Keep the camera handy at all times.
This may seem obvious to most of us who have tried to capture candid moments or action with our cameras, but many a great shot is missed because the camera is inaccessible or the moment passes before the photographers can set the controls on their cameras. The best pictures you've ever seen were not made by photographers who just got lucky. Those pictures were made by anticipators who were prepared to capture something fleeting, and did so by seizing an opportunity at the "decisive moment."

How do I carry this thing?
I've seen many different systems put to use by climber-photographers in order to keep camera gear readily accessible. Every shooter will have to make decisions about cameras, bags, and accessory equipment based on the nature of their trip, their budget, and their interest level. It's good to study systems used by others and out of that observation create something that works for you. Bear in mind that whatever photographic equipment is chosen, it will be useless if you can't get to it without halting your team's progress and removing your backpack. Whether you're carrying a pocket point-and-shoot or a full fledged professional SLR (single lens reflex) with multiple lenses, be prepared to have the camera in hand in just a few seconds so you don't miss "that shot."

Capture those spontaneous, story-telling moments.
If you can get your shot without irritating your companions with a line like, "Can you do that again?" you'll preserve your subjects' candid interaction with you and avoid getting that "deer in the headlights" look from your subjects every time you lift the camera to your face. And spontaneity aside, don't shy away from non-traditional photographic conditions. If you're met with some rowdy weather, don't stow the camera away, tell the story. People will be amazed when they see pictures of your climbing partners working through difficult conditions.

Tell a story with your pictures.
Think of how your slideshow will look back home to someone who has no understanding of climbing trips. Photos of preparation, packing, and even training can be subjects that non-climbing friends easily understand and great segues into those gripping action shots later in your presentation. Don't stop shooting after reaching the summit. Many good mountaineering photos are made while going downhill. The background can often be much more dramatic than the hill while it's in front of you during the ascent. Back at camp, try to capture the satisfaction or exhaustion on the faces of your climbing partners.

Managing Light
Photography, described by its Latin word roots, literally means "recording or representing with light." If you want more consistent results, you will need to develop your understanding of and your ability to see and use light no matter what kind of camera you are using. In addition, you will need control over your camera's exposure functions. Fortunately, this is becoming more available on pocket cameras of recent design. Almost all SLR type cameras are equipped with various modes of exposure control. Take advantage of the fantastic early morning and late evening light while composing landscapes in addition to keeping the camera accessible during the daytime when all the action is likely to occur.

How do I meter snow scenes?
Many photographers are confused by their camera's erratic light meter readings while shooting snowy scenes. Remember that your camera's light meter does not see color, people, or mountains through the viewfinder. It just sees a rectangle, and must pick an average exposure level so that hopefully nothing will over or under expose. Because snow reflects many times as much light as, for instance, green grass, you will notice that following your meter's suggestions may often result in grayish, dark photographs of scenes that were brilliant and white. Overexposing a stop or two while shooting bright, snowy scenes will combat this tendency toward dark, underexposed photos. Remember to readjust your settings before heading into the tent to capture your climbing partners' camp antics.

To flash or not to flash?
More often than not, the sun will cast some degree of shadow onto your subject's face, unless they are lying around camp (toes to the sky) under a noon sun. Using your camera's onboard flash will often help equalize difficult exposure situations, such as those in which your composition includes both people and a surrounding landscape. Try shooting one frame with flash and one without, especially on a bright sunny day. This is a technique that many pros employ to help "fill in" the shadows on a person's face. Realize that it can be especially difficult to make the flash reach in under baseball caps. Try getting down low.

Climb a tree, dig a hole ...
Everyone has seen thousands of photographs made at eye level. What would your subject look like from a worm's point of view? A well known photographer once told me that his most useful piece of photography equipment was his own two feet. Get a move on! Think about positioning your camera someplace different. Move to a different position and keep viewing your subject through the camera. Is your background getting better? When in doubt, get in close and fill the frame with your subject or a portion of them. Unused space in your frame just tells viewers that you were too lazy to move around.

Shoot it wide and shoot it long.
Often we're tempted to pull back with our wide-angle zooms or lenses when we are surrounded by picturesque scenes. Try capturing both the wide-angle perspective and then move in for a telephoto "slice." Your telephoto (or zoom) lens will bring the background in closer and help you convey a sense of scale while compressing your scene together. Using your wide-angle will have the opposite effect, spreading the contents of your photos away from each other and increasing the feeling of depth in your picture. Alternating between wide-angle, mid range, and telephoto shots will liven up your slide show with a variety of perspectives.

Cold weather considerations for digital and film cameras:

  • Digital cameras present two big obstacles for climbers on long and cold-weather trips: battery power and image storage space. The playback feature on your digital camera saps precious battery power as you review images in the tent during your three-week Denali expedition. Most digital cameras are powered by proprietary batteries that are very expensive, often difficult to come by, and tough to recharge in the backcountry. Bring all of your batteries into your sleeping bag at night and keep the charged extras in your mid-layer pockets during the day. Use your playback window to delete unwanted photos and make room for others, but be wary of weakening battery power. If you are shooting digital, consider purchasing a high capacity card (two or more gigabytes) to use on your longer trips. Some Mp3 players can also be used as digital storage space. Be careful about depending on additional battery powered accessories on a big remote trip. If that iPod runs out of juice and you were depending on it for photo storage, then you may be in trouble.
  • Film cameras, though not as convenient as digital, can be easier to manage on long, cold trips such as those in Alaska. Consider using a film camera if it will be too difficult to maintain a battery charge, or too expensive to buy a high capacity memory card or storage device. If you're using film be careful while rewinding your film in super cold temperatures. Film can become brittle when the mercury drops, and forcing that stuck rewind wheel could cause your film to snap apart. Hopefully that doesn't happen on summit day!

What type of camera?
Not every photographer is going to benefit from spending a small fortune on a professional grade camera and lens system. If you're thinking about an upgrade, consider your own picture-taking behavior and heed not the pushy camera salesman. If you're unlikely to invest lots of time studying technique and camera functions, then a simple pocket camera with fewer controls will be less intimidating to you and result in a more enjoyable photography experience and better picture results. If you anticipate becoming engrossed in the art of space, light, and time, then perhaps you should compare the attributes of a few different traditional SLRs or DSLRs (the digital equivalent), which will provide added control and room for experimenting. For good reviews of digital cameras, I recommend the popular website: www.dpreview.com.

Light is right, or weight is great?
Consider the nature of your trip. Will too much camera gear slow you down and aggravate your companions? Are the pictures for posterity or are you hoping to publish a few of your images? What is the terrain like? High angle terrain may make it very cumbersome to deal with heavy camera gear. Lower angle routes may lend themselves better to camera accessories and additional photographic opportunities.

Get familiar with your gear.
Like climbing equipment, photography equipment is less effective if you are unaccustomed to its capabilities and limitations. Read that camera manual and familiarize yourself with the important functions. The quicker you are at handling the cameras controls, the better you'll be at catching those great shots.

Study good photography
Read up on photography technique and browse the work of seasoned pros. Many have online portfolios. Take note of good pictures and ask yourself, "What makes this shot so great?" Remember that good photography takes practice, patience, and some hard work. Nothing great comes easy, but hey, you knew that already - you're a climber for Pete's sake!


About the author: Before joining AAI's guiding staff, Matt worked as a staff photographer at two Northwest newspapers. He has worked as a freelance photographer for the Associated Press, and his pictures have been published in several national magazines. More of his work can be viewed online at www.MatthewAndersonPhoto.com.

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